Disney Princesses: Girl Identity and Imaginative Play

May 18th, 2015




By: Cat Lincoln

Disney entered a new realm of success with its collection of iconic princess characters. Though each princess has a distinguished personality and story, the company enters dangerous territory in terms of how it may impose a norm of femininity that influences gender identities for young girls and even boys. Each Disney princess is a imagined vision of a female identity that profoundly affects a little girl’s understanding of what it means to be a girl and what it means to be herself as a girl. In her study “Damsels in Discourse”, Karen E. Wohlwend explores Disney princess characters in the world of child’s play. She bases her analysis on the discourse that princess characters are attached to, i.e. their story narratives, and the extent to which that discourse of identity is in the control of children. The success of Disney princesses brings us to a aspect of the genius of Disney that sets it apart as an influencer of American consumerism. Wohlwend explains that along with the films that feature the princesses, there comes an astounding collection of “princess accessories”. Due to the “pervasive availability” of these commodities, which characterizes American consumer culture as a whole, the products “blur the line between play and reality, allowing children to live in-character: One can be Cinderella all day long, sleeping in pink princess sheets, eating from lavender Tupperware with Cinderella decals, and dressing head to toe in licensed apparel, from plastic jewel encrusted tiara to fuzzy slipper-socks.” (2, 58) Disney princess characters have penetrated “reality” by embodying their own consumer products that surround the child’s everyday.

Furthermore, the commodities associated with the Disney princesses are signs of certain aspects of femininity the princess embodies and allows her to embrace them as her own. The attached clip (figure 3) is a commercial that reveals the potentially damaging effects of the commodification of femininity. The ad targets a young girl just like the actress featured. The first line is “fantasy becomes reality”, persuading the child that purchasing the “Cinderella Carriage Vanity” will allow her to somehow access the perfect beauty and happiness of Cinderella. The product itself is a mirror that allows the child to imagine herself transforming into princess Cinderella as she tries on fake pearls or “fairytale flare” and “magical surprises you can wear” that will give her a “princess look”. The commercial then ends singing “Cinderella beauty so pretty and aglow, now back to ball let’s go!”, which entices the child with the final transformation into her own princess that goes to her ball to meet her prince.

Wohlwend puts the commercial in context by reminding us of how each princess must be beautiful and thus, each princess defines a normative and idealized meaning of beauty. She claims that the narratives and songs the princesses are attached to allow them to “ ‘talk’” and “[insert] the little girl into romantic heterosexuality” (2, 59). Princess “identity texts”, as determined by Feminist post-structuralist researchers, “engage with the production of girls’ conscious and unconscious desires, prepare for and proffer a ‘happy ever after’ situation in which the finding of the prince…comes to seem like a solution to a set of overwhelming desires and problems.” (2, 60) In addition to young girls developing pre-determined ideas of femininity and gender identities, they become attached to the stories of their admired princess characters. Wohlwend sites a study that found “children often rejected revisionist stories of brave princesses and gentle princes”. Young girls, and perhaps even boys, are committed to the stories Disney tells them and work from those narratives in their own discourse of play, committing to a sense of identity defined by the princess as well as her story.

However, Wohlwend seeks to complicate to simple a conclusion that Disney princesses damage youth identities in play. Her studies reveal, in fact, that child improvisations or revisions of princess narratives are a source of empowerment. One child she observed, Zoe, seemed to be empowered by reworking the narrative of “Sleeping Beauty” as a video project for school. When videotaping with a fellow student, Colin, Zoe was displeased with his sword-fighting technique and took the sword from him to show him the correct way. Additionally, her changes to her story board by giving the prince long hair, thus changing him into a princess and “[rewriting] the role of helpless victim” for the female into one of agency and strength. (2, 72)

However, Wohlwend still sees Zoe dependent on traditional gender roles of the narrative of “Sleeping Beauty”. For example, she draws the kiss between prince and princess according to the image of an “active passive relationship”. Wohlwend explains that “the placement of the prince’s head above the princess’ head combined with the diagonal vector of the kiss…visually communicates that the prince is the originator of the action, and the princess is the recipient.” Therefore, Zoe relies on the fairy tale theme of “prince as heroic rescuer and princess as…victim” imposed by almost every Disney princess narrative. (2, 71) Figure 4 is a clip made by Buzzfeed, a social media example of the power of parody to deconstruct gender. The clip shows older girls who act out modern day princesses in a way that criticizes the princess stories for their incredibly limited definitions of femininity and gender, as well as how little they fit as a role model for today’s modern girl. The juxtaposition of these two sources raises complications about the damaging effects of Disney princesses in terms of imposed gender identity for young children. Do young girls grow out of their attachment or commitment to their favorite Disney princess? Can there be creative empowerment in child’s play if the discourse is already established by Disney? Does the modern girl conquer problematic truth of princess inspired gender identities?


(2)  Wohlwend, Karen E. “Damsels in Discourse: Girls Consuming and Producing Identity Texts through Disney Princess Play.” Reading Research Quaterly, 44, No. 1. JStor. Jan-Mar. 2009: pp. 57-83.


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